Sadly, the passing yesterday of Nabi Tajima, the Japanese woman that was the oldest person in the world, now places Giuseppina Projetto-Frau as the second oldest person in the world.
by Jerry Finzi
Italy’s Giuseppina Projetto-Frau is is about to turn 116 on May 30th and is currently the oldest living person in Europe. Several days ago in Barcelona, 116 year-old Spaniard, Ana Vela Rubio passed away. Ana was born on October 29th, 1901 which made her the longest living European. Ana passes the baton to Giuseppina, bringing back the title formerly held by Emma Morano, who died in March 2017 at 117 years old, who was also considered to be the last human who lived during the 19th century. Born in Sardinia in 1902, Projetto has been dubbed La Nonna d'Italia (the grandmother of Italy). She is the third oldest person alive in the world today, after two Japanese women.
Giuseppina (her friends call her Pina) was born in 1902 in La Maddalena--a small island off Sardinia's northern tip. Her father’s name was Cicillo, and she had four siblings. Her grandfather had moved to La Maddalena from Sicily in the wake of the revolt of Garibaldi. At 5 years old, after losing her mother, along with with three of the four sisters, she was sent to the female orphanage Satta-Sequi of Ozieri on the main island of Sardinia, where she lived until she was 21. Pina calls the the orphanage il Collegio, where she learned the art of embroidery, a craft she practiced her entire life. Pina has vivid memories of Ozieri... the fountain with the two marble lions that is located just in front of the "Collegio", the Attilio Pintus pastry shop and the "Swiss" café where she used to buy candy.
She married twice, but bore no children of her own. Her second husband, Giuseppe Frau, had 3 children that Nonna Pina raised with great love. In 1946, when her son moved to Montelupo Fiorentino near Florence for work, she moved with him, where she still resides today with one of her daughters, Julia. Her son was tragically lost when trying to save bathers from drowning--a sorrow she still carries with her. Pina worked many years for the Bitossi Ceramics factory in Montelupo Fiorentino. She attributes some of her longevity to eating chocolate.
She is one of tens of thousands of Italians over 100 and still going. Many scientists have sought to identify the key to Italy’s extraordinary longevity, with suggestions ranging from a Mediterranean diet to hormones to a good sex life.
from Italy Magazine...
by Silvia Donati
New rooms opening, a valuable collection finally on view, compelling exhibitions, and, alas, a price increase: here’s what’s new at the Uffizi for 2018.
Let’s start with some not-so-good news: peak season ticket prices (March 1 through October 31) are now €20 (an increase of more than 50% since they previously cost €8). (If you travel in the low season - November 1 to February 28 - then the cost drops to €12.)
But hey, art is priceless, and the art contained in the Uffizi even more so.
And now there’s even more incredible art to see there, thanks to the opening of eight new rooms devoted to Caravaggio and 17th-century painting. Painted in a bright cinnabar red meant to evoke the fervor of that century, but also a color that was often used in fabrics and wallpapers depicted in paintings at the time, the rooms contain such Caravaggio masterpieces as La Medusa, Il Bacco and Il Sacrificio di Isacco, alongside works by Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Gherardo Delle Notti, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Artemisia Gentileschi, in a confrontation between Florentine and Italian art with European art.
More welcome news comes with the recent opening to the general public of ...
Read MORE HERE...
Now I've heard that in Pienza (our favorite Tuscan village) loves hosting some odd festivals from time to time (like cheese rolling contests), but this one takes the cake--literally.
The Torneo Gioco del Panforte (Tournament Games of the Panforte) takes place from December 26 - 30 in the Piazza Pio II Loggiato del Comune, with competing teams throwing a panforte cake to a table from 15 feet away. The team throwing and sliding the panforte closest to the edge of the table is the winner.
Panforte is a sort of flat, disc shaped Italian fruitcake made by Italians during the Christmas season.
For info: www.commune.pienza.siena.it
Ok... I'm going to ask you all to be quiet about what I'm going to tell you, and insist you don't share this information... but in my opinion, Pienza is the absolute best Tuscan Renaissance town to visit, to eat in, to stroll around in, to live in, to shop and to love. But really, don't spread it around, or it will get way too touristy and change forever...
We discovered Pienza during our first agriturismo apartment rental just outside of the town in the clay hills of Southern Tuscany known as the Crete Senesi. Just down the road from our apartment were sheep in the fields... a sign of what this town is really famous for--Pecorino--sheep's milk cheese! (Pecora means sheep).
We were teased with the view of the hilltown from our villa's window as the sun set after our arrival, the lights of the town starting to glow. The next morning as the blue mist lifted and turned into a sunrise, I was up early to watching the changing view and my first morning in Tuscany. Yes, Pienza is indeed a hilltown like the many hundreds more in Italy. Long ago in history, people built their towns on top of steep and often craggy hills, embankments or cliffs for defensive purposes. Pienza is also a defensive hilltown, complete with massive walls, watchtowers and gates. But there is a difference--the hill that the town was built upon is fairly flat at the top. This means that the town itself is a joy to walk in effortlessly--no climbing step after step or incredibly steep streets and alleyways. Still, Pienza has one of the most amazing views of the Val d'Orcia below and the wonderful rolling hills of this part of Tuscany from its south facing promenade--one of the finest we've seen in all of Italy.
The promenade has an unobstructed view of the valley all the way to Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano where people hike in summer and ski in winter. The view of the rolling hills of the Val d'Orcia have an advantage for photographers... The view from the promenade looks to the south, which means that if you want to see amazing light and shadows, spend some time either in the morning as the sun rises or late in the day as the sun sets. You can literally watch the texture of the hills and fields change right before your eyes if you spend some time watching from this unique vantage point. If there are fair weather clouds moving over the valley, their shadows will only add to the God-like sculpting of the landscape.
Pienza owes its Renaissance beauty to Enea Silvio Piccolomini, born in the town in 1405. At the time of his birth, the village was called . Enea was to later became Pope Pius II and had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Construction started in 1459 and by August of 1462, Pope Pius II consecrated the Duomo. La pieve di Corsignano, a much earlier medieval church built in the 10th century, lies only a few hundred yards from the walls of Pienza, attesting to the long history of the town. Christians were worshiping on this site as early as 714 AD.
In Pienza you can visit Palazzo Piccolomini, Pope Pius' main residence with it's interior court, three story loggia that overlook a terraced Renaissance garden with views of the valley and Monte Amiata. Across the piazza there is Palazzo Vescovile, built to house the attending bishops who traveled with the Pope. The third building on the piazza of note is Palazzo Comunale, the town hall which the church required to be built in the 16th century to match the status of Pienza as an "official city".
Strolling through the beautifully paves streets, you will come across shops for cheese, wine, clothing, ceramics and gifts. There are a good variety of both casual and fine dining places to eat, gelaterias and even bars and alimentari. There are many apartment and villa rentals in the town limits as well as agriturismo farm rentals in the surrounding countryside.
Perhaps the best thing about Pienza is its location. The landscape in and around the Val d'Orcia is characterized by open vistas of plowed and textured landscape stretching over low hills to the horizon, punctuated geometrical rows of cypresses and solitary villas. These are the views and vistas you expect from Tuscany. The crete senesi are the clay hills, many of which have been tamed by generations of farmers.
Pienza is about 50 miles south of Florence, 25 miles from Siena and 35 miles from Perugia. You could easily use Pienza as your hub for a longer stay in Tuscany, driving to the major towns. There are also many worthwhile villages in close proximity to Pienza: Montalcino (home of the famed Brunello wine), Bounconvento (a wonderful medieval walled town), Bagno Vignoni (a village built around Roman baths), Bagno San Filippo (a natural hot springs where locals bathe in the sulfur waters for free), Castiglione del Lago (a fortress castle town on the shore of Lake Trasimeno), and Cortona (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame).
But remember... don't tell anyone about this Tuscan town. This is just between us, OK?
A huge sinkhole over 500 feet long opened up in Florence on Wednesday morning, swallowing 20 cars parked along the Arno River. The collapse happened at 6:15am in the center of the tourist packed city, between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Le Grazie.
Florentine Mayor, Dario Nardella, said the collapse was "very serious", but thankfully (more than likely due to the early morning hour), there were no injuries. Investigations suggest the sinkhole was caused by a large water main break, with the the water eroding part of the road. The area has been closed to traffic until the vehicles are removed and the surrounding road can be stabilized.
Sinkholes are common in Italy, particularly in the south where the geology is a karst structure well known to allow natural sinkholes to occur. Obviously, the sinkhole in Florence is a man made event. In Naples there have been many sinkhole events forcing people from their homes, while even in Rome and Catania trucks and cars have fallen victim--literally--to sinkholes. In general, the geology of Italy is ripe for caves, grottoes and sinkholes and people have been digging out tunnels under villages and cities alike for thousands of years for tombs, military protection, wells and storage.
In Italy, you never really know what's under your feet...
UPDATE: When viewing the video below to show my son Lucas, we noticed that three cars in the sinkhole actually have their rear windshield wipers on! This is an indication that there were people sitting in their cars when the street collapsed. Glad no one was hurt, but it was pretty funny to see those wipers going...
If you really study the right hand of the David statue by Michelangelo, you'll notice the clenching and tensing of the muscles. His veins bulge while adrenaline floods his brain. You see, David has just decided in his mind to fight Goliath. He is determined. His hand shows that. He is in that place in between decision and action. It's that split second moment before jumping into a pathway which will change his life forever--except he still doesn't know the outcome. All he has is determination and prayers--and something heavy clenched in his grip... he'll have to load his sling fast... faster than ever before...
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Like a nice glass of wine, a good cigar can be smelled and tasted. A high quality cigar is a special delight, and Italy is an esteemed cigar production powerhouse. Famous for Florentine steak, sculpture, and architecture, Tuscany also features the popular Tuscan cigars... (more...)
Reaching to the heavens in Italy often manifested itself in the design and construction of free standing bell towers, defensive towers and privately owned towers built by successful merchants and aristocrats as a sign of their status and a protective measure in times of siege. The bell towers are known as campanili.
But some perhaps reached too high and built on sandy and clay soils or in areas frequented by earthquake. This resulted in some towers leaning, and even collapsing entirely (many were lost this way). Still, many are still with us... as the uber-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. But there are other leaning towers in Italy...
The Island of Burano, in the Venetian lagoon, is a contrast from the drab colors of Venice, having multicolored houses. The kaleidescope of colors is this island's main appeal, but it also has a leaning tower, the bell tower of the 15th century San Martino Church. The island is also known for lace making.
The Torre delle Milizie --Tower of the Militia--is a medieval tower in Rome located near Trajan's Market in the Imperial Forum. It is said to have been built between 1198 and 1216. An important medieval monument in Rome, the Torre delle Milizie measures 10.5 × 9.5 m at its base. The original height of the tower is unsure (it was taller when originally built), but following an earthquake in 1348, the top floors were removed as a safety measure, reducing the structure to the current height of 160 ft. The 1348 earthquake also resulted in the slight tilting of the structure to make it one of the many leaning towers of Italy.
Built in 1536 by Greek Orthodox refugees fleeing from Turkey during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, San Giorgio dei Greci has thin white bell tower. The tower was built in 1603 but it began to sink into the Venice lagoon from day one and still today has an pretty serious lean toward the canal.
Between the 12th and the 13th century, Bologna had as many as 180 towers but less than 20 are still standing today. Two of the most interesting are simply called the Two Towers, the taller named Asinelli is 318 feet tall and the shorter one called the Garisenda is 157 feet tall. They have become the symbol of Bologna. Both built in the early 1100s, Garisenda leans much more than Asinelli but being so close together, the effect of leaning is enhanced.
The imposing Church of San Pietro, was established in the 7th century. It has an obviously leaning bell tower (built by Codussi in 1482), and was the Cathedral of Venice from its origins in eighth century.The present building was built at the end of the 16th and in the first three decades of the 17th century. It contains the Throne of St Peter, a 13th century seat cut from a funeral stone and inscribed with words from the Koran.
Built in the 1100s, The Church of San Michele degli Scalzi in Pisa has a Lombard Romanesque bell tower measuring 75 feet tall. The city of Pisa is built on soil that is barely above sea level and is composed of an unstable sand-clay mix which caused not only the famous Leaning Tower to lean, but also San Michele deglie Scalzi's tower to lean toward the River Arno.
The late Renaissance bell tower of San Stefano in Venice, built in 1544, is tilted more than 7 feet from vertical. Its leaning is caused by problems in cellars under the tower - the original wooden pilings are in bad condition, and it was built on sandy lagoon sediments. Hopefully this beautiful bell tower will not follow the fate of the original St. Mark's Campanile which collapsed in 1902.
North of Lake Trasimeno in Perugia outside of the town of Vernazzano is a unique leaning tower. This tower is a remnant of an ancient castle built before 1089. Vernazzano was an important defensive unit along the ancient road that led from Perugia to Cortona and was inhabited from the 13th to the 16th centuries. It was abandoned by the 18th century when rocky mountain under it moved after a strong earthquake. This leaning tower is frequented by hikers, Driving to Vernazzano, parking and walking along a wooded path to the dangerously leaning tower. This tower is being held up by an installation of steel girders and cables.
The Cathedral of Modena boasts its own tilting tower known as Ghirlandina, taking its name from the two rows of garland-like balustrades which crown it. It is viewed by the people of Modena as the symbol of their city. Ghirlandina did not only have the religious function deriving from its status as cathedral tower, but was also a defensive tower used to store important civic documents and charters. It reaches upward next to the cathedral nearly 290 feet tall. It is a combination of two architectural styles: the original square base is in Romanesque style, while the octagonal and pyramidal upper parts are Gothic. Work on the upper part began in 1261 and was completed in 1319.
Dating from the 11th century, the Campanile of the Cathedral of Santo Stefano in Caorle, just east of Venice, is a wonderful example of Romanesque style of architecture. It stands a proud 148 feet tall and sports a conical spire above its cylindrical shape. It was more than likely built as a watchtower or lighthouse for this small port town before becoming a bell tower. The tower is tilted nearly 1.4 ° east-Southeast, around about 1/3 the lean of Pisa's famous tower.
Do Leaning Towers Ever Fall?
In a word--Yes. As far as we know, Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Campanile wasn't even leaning before it collapsed. During its 500 years it had been repeatedly struck by lightning, burned and damaged in several earthquakes. It might have been best to scrap the whole thing and start over after having suffered so much damage. Instead, they simply rebuilt the damaged parts, occasionally adding more height (and more weight) to the tower that was originally constructed sometime between 1148 and 1157. That wasn’t the greatest idea, given that the tower’s foundation consists of no more than vertical oak pilings driven into a bed of clay in the lagoon, then filled in with sand.
It’s no big surprise that the tower finally collapsed on July 14th, 1902. A large crack formed in the morning, rising diagonally across the main corner buttress. Falling stones within the bell chamber prevented any fatalities by warning bystanders that something was amiss. A new tower, with a much sturdier iron foundation, was built in the lost tower’s image. That is the tower we see today.
Many other towers have also fallen throughout Italy's history. In a country so geologically active, it's inevitable. For example, in 2012, the 13th century Torre dei Modenesi in the town of Finale Emilia (the name is rather foreboding), was partially collapsed by an earthquake that also killed six people. Following an aftershock, it collapsed completely. In keeping with the Italian spirit, it proudly stands today, rebuilt by its stubborn residents.
Some collapsed towers aren't meant to be rebuilt, it seems. Such is the case with the Torre Civica of Pavia which collapsed without warning in 1989. The reason for its collapse is still not known--perhaps the reason it hasn't been rebuilt.
So, the next time you're in Italy and want to climb one of these towers, you might want to pause and imagine what it would feel like if even a small earthquake shook underneath your tower... Perhaps carry along a travel-parachute?
And if you're in Bologna and stop dead in your tracks, gasp and look up at the leaning Twin Towers, just make sure you're not standing in the direction of their lean...
Copyright, 2017 Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy, All rights reserved
Seven miles north of Florence rests a giant treasure from the Renaissance known as Colosso dell'Appennino, or the Appennine Colossus. The 35 foot tall gigantic sculpture is found in Villa Demidoff and was built by the 16th century Italian sculptor Giambologna. He guards the pond in front of him and the grottoes inside his belly. His beard is heavy with stalactites and by his pose one can tell his heart is heavy with time itself. But the Colossus isn't merely a statue... it's also a building. There are chambers inside his body, and even a fireplace in his head that when lit would allow smoke to come out of his nose. One special room could hold a small orchestra to play music for people visiting the site.
He used to have other neighboring bronze statues, many of which were lost or stolen. The massive brick and stone structure has stood for centuries in the same spot, weathered and worn, but still magnificent. The park that the colossus is situated in, once built as an estate for the mistress of an Italian duke, serves as the perfect setting for the gentle giant. The colossus suggests a bond between man and Nature himself.
Perhaps if Giambologna had built his Colossus in a grand piazza in Florence, it would would now be considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the world, but alas, it resides off the beaten path and is little known. The masonry Colossus once had rooms, caves and inner passageways, and even a hydraulic system that connected the head of the giant to the various water sources in his body, and the fountain that poured from the fish he is squeezing. Today it has some visitors, but no where near the number it deserves.
Truth be told, the Park of Pratolino, where the giant resides, is one of the most beautiful parks in the area surrounding Florence. Other treats here include the beautiful Chapel of Buontalenti with its hexagonal plan; behind the Colossus is a fantastic Dragon; below it is a decorated grotto. If you don't go behind the immense statue, you might miss seeing it. There is also the Cupid's Grotto by Buontaltenti; the large aviary; the Maschera Fishpond originally used for hot baths; and the Fountain of Jupiter. Some of these can be visited only upon request. The park is open every weekend and has recently become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Guided tours, even during the week, can be booked by directly calling the park, and all at no cost. Yes, there is no entrance fee to this park.
So if you are in Florence and are looking for the unusual, just 7 miles north of the town this Giant slumbers waiting to awaken your imagination. I'd recommend lunching in Fiesole, then moving on to Pratolino afterwards. Or do it in reverse and watch the sun set over Florence from Fiesole and enjoy a dinner and wine with talks of dragons and giants...
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Vie Cave (vee-ah cavay, meaning cave roads) are mysterious pathways cut by Etruscan hand tools into the mile high tuff stone (tuff or tufa are layers of solidified ash from volcanic eruptions) of the Maremma area of southern Tuscany. The Etruscans lived 200-800 years before the birth of Christ and are the ancient ancestors of most Tuscans.
The paths are an unusual opportunity for hiking, horseback riding and nature photography. They are cut into the tuff to a depth of 30 meters or more. Some are fairly wide and could have handled small carts while others are very narrow and could only be used for human and animal transport, such as pack animals, as donkeys are still used in Italy today. The Vie Cave also incorporates both Pagan and Christian sites and a necropolis.
The vie cave roads radiate like a messy spiderweb from the towns of Pitigliano, Sovana, and Sorano. Some of the roads have more modern sacred Christian images, carved symbols and shrines that were installed to protect against evil Pagan spirits. You will also find ancient tombs. Some paths are green and lush, while others are rocky havens of moss and lichen.
If you decide to visit the Vie Cave, plan ahead, perhaps hire a guide or plan a horseback tour. If walking, be aware that hiking shoes should be worn--some of the paths contain rugged steps and others are uneven due to erosion. This is a true Italian adventure, not just another cookie-cutter tourist destination. Have fun!
We decided that we were going to pick up supplies to cook with tonight after our trip to Florence and Fiesole. We tried to look for signs for an In CoOp supermarket or an alimentari Grocery store... but no signs and the only alimentari on the way back to Mormoraia was closed (at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon?), so we pulled on the side of the road and asked Tommy where the nearest one was. Niente closer that 20 miles... at least that's what he says. I don't trust him totally. After all, besides sounding a bit robotic, his accent is pure American! How much can he possibly know about local shops? He's just a tourist--just like us!
So I figured that nearby San Gimignano must have an alimentari outside the historic walls... so we set course... 8 minutes away. We found one! A nice one too. Paper towels for napkins, cleanup and to clear my clay dusted rear window... eggs... sliced tachina (turkey)... brasciola (very thin sliced salt cured beef)... little tomatoes... onion... snacks... drinks...butter... half loaf of bread. We were set for dinner and breakfast--or so we thought.
Another side hassle was that we were so chatty with the prospect of a home cooked meal combined with our friend Tommy not calling out turns for some reason as he usually does... we kept missing the turn-off out of town--four times! Sigh. (Our family travel theme song, to the tune of Beach Boys, I Get Around: "Turn, Turn Turn around, I turn around... Turn around, ooh..ooh...oooo... I turn around... I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old street...")
As we hunted for basics in our cucina cupboards, there were no staples that typically are found in these apartment or house rentals... salt, pepper, foil, spices, coffee, sugar, etc. So this meant that problem solving Babbo had to fix this somehow--and we were not going to pay the 50 Euro per person for dinner in Mormoraia's little cafe!
OK... boil water... cook bird nest pasta we bought... frying pan... butter... slice up the brasciola (salty enough) into the pan... Lucas, slice those little tomatoes and toss in... add some wine... reduce sauce... toss in a bowl and grate little piece of leftover pecorino cheese we had two days ago... butter the unsalted regional bread... pour the rest of the wine... and Presto! My new recipe! Pasta Pomodoro e Brasciola alla Babbo!
Lisa and Lucas said it was one of the best meals here so far. Bravo, Babbo! One morning I made a down and dirty frittata with the little we had in our Mormoraia pantry. Buono gusto!
Other times we bought food at the large supermarkets, which had great cheese displays, not so decent breads, unrefrigerated milk in cartons, but lots and lots of produce. The fruits and veggies were very good for supermarkets. The tomatoes disappointed me, though. They seem to be selling a lot of hybrid hothouse grown tomatoes (like tomatoes on the vine in the U.S.). Decent quality, but not organic, fresh picked or heirloom varieties.
The cheeses were something we could get anywhere--supermarket or alimentari. Cacciacavalo was our favorite... a dumbbell shaped cheese with mellow, nutty flavor which went with everything. One of my favorite things was the millefiore honey... thick as jam and incredibly delicious on bread in the morning. It was also great with ricotta. (I was never really a fan of American style honey.)
Lisa also fell in love with making coffee (espresso, excuse me) in those little Moka pots. I'm sure Santa will leave one under the tree for her. I wish I had access to a pizza oven while in Italy. I would have loved to make pizza there... but heck, I discovered that I make pizza better than we had in most of Italy anyway.
Cooking for ourselves in Italy became one of our favorite things, although Lucas always liked eating out in a new ristorante.
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This was one very full day. (I'm writing this a day late). We were supposed to go ballooning this morning but it was canceled--too windy. We instead went to Vinci, above Florence... the birth place of Leonardo da Vinci. We enjoyed hilltop views along with models of Leonardo's inventions: a life size replica of his human powered flying machine, various military weapons, tanks and bridges, hydrometer, cranes, a bicycle and even his design for a wind up car. A high point for me (besides actually being up on a very high point) was the ringing of the huge bells in the church tower during Sunday mass. I shot a video of them but recorded it at double speed without sound (duh). Those bells looked like they would shake the tower apart as they swung in and out of the tower.. no, wait. Leonardo invented a device that neutralized the swing effect of these bells. We saw it in the museum. Leonardo... what a brain. Imagine him walking onto the set of Shark Tank with one of his inventions...
All in all, it was one of the better museum experiences so far. After that a stroll to a tiny piazza for some gelato. Then we headed to our next stop, the Renaissance town of Lucca.
We drove under the arched Porta Elisa and through the fortress walls and found parking right away... but as long as I use my handicapped placard I don't have to pay for parking. Very nice of Italians to do this. Lucca is a beautiful city surrounded by very thick fortress walls. There is even a moat... dry nowadays.
A stroll up Via Elisa (I told Lisa I picked this street just for her) revealed a friendly renaissance feel... Juliet and Romeo could have been better off here. Villa after villa, balconies, a huge tree topped tower, secret gardens and very narrow passages gave us opportunities for lots of pics. Lucas loved the mailboxes mortared through the front walls and the giant Nutella bottle in a snack bar. I liked the door knockers.
We saw a little pizzeria got some slices and sat on marble church steps snacking and watching all sorts of people walk by... priests, starlet wannabees, nuns in full habits, grubby tight pants regazzo trying to look the part of successful playboys, babies with huge Bug Bunny balloons and dogs of all sorts--fat, underfed, happy, or way to old to be walking. Great people watching in this town.
This is a very touristy town, but we definitely enjoyed the relaxed pace. Everyone was in their strolling mode. We finally made it to the Piazza dell' Anfiteatro in the center of town.. an oval piazza built over the top of an ancient amphitheater.... it's still under there. Although pretty because of the curved buildings surrounding the perimeter, the place was tourist-kitchy with tourist menu cafes. We walked the long walk back to the car with my knees and feet complaining the whole way.
After driving out of town I drove to something I knew would impress Lucas and Lisa.... a huge, miles long Roman aqueduct. Heck, I Was impressed. The thing was massive, beautiful and went on for miles.
All in all, Lucca is one of my favorite places so far.
Next we drove through lots of traffic toward Pisa. The traffic was wicked, stop and go... made me wish I had an automatic transmission. Yikes.
The first impression was how big a city Pisa is... and how popular a tourist spot it is. The streets surrounding the Piazza Miracola were packed with cars, people and vendors hawking all sorts of tourist junk. We found parking a block away in a city pay lot... luckily the handicap rules made me save 40 Euros! (About 50 bucks... For only an hour and a half.)
We were all impressed by the amount of lean... I mean it is a lot! We were also blow away by the Baptistry and Duomo because of the decorative sculptures on their facades. Most entertaining was watching people go into all sorts of contortions with hands, arms, legs and backs while taking the typical "I'm holding up the tower" photos. I even took one of Lucas holding the tower up.
Ok, so we hit the road, wanting to head back early because lo and behold, our hot air balloon ride was rescheduled for the next morning--at 7am! Nasty traffic from weekenders driving back from the beaches to their homes around Florence caused us to get back at 10:30pm. We aren't going to get enough sleep and we have to get up at 5 to get to the take-off field in time. I was a bit nervous about arranging to send my little family up thousands of feet in a balloon basket, but the guy I booked is one of the best in the world who has trained many other balloon pilots.
next up... up... and away....
Well, we did it! My Kindle's bell alarm got us up at 5am and we got ready as quick as possible to get on the road. We were actually a little early for our flight so the balloon crew hadn't arrived yet. A phone call and a few minutes later, Gianna pulled up to the side of us in her BallooninTuscany.com shrink-wrapped Range Rover.
A handsome, outdoorsy smile greeted us and said to jump in her car for the drive to the launch site. A tumbling roller coaster of a ride through the woods and we spilled out into their hidden field. It's there we met Gianna's husband, Stefano, the burly, smiling maestro of ballooning, having just arrived with his balloon trailer in tow. He made us feel confident right off... his cigarette and smile seemed to go with each other. His generous frame spoke of loving life and pasta. He spoke English charmingly well, having had lived in New York City back in the early Eighties. In another age you could picture him as the aging flying ace putting all the younger pilots though their paces. In fact, he has trained most of the current crop of competing balloonists.
Stefano, Gianna and a young assistant pilot, Roberto, set up the balloon methodically... first the basket, then pull and stretch the balloon along the ground, straighten out the lines and cables, then the burners, fire them up, inflate. The first test blast of the burners spooked all of us. The thing sounds like a jet. The whole process took about 25 minutes.
We then climbed aboard--Lisa did a great job getting her aching knee on board, Lucas climbed right over, and Babbo climbed up and slid in. Before we knew what was happening, Stefano had us up and away within seconds. In a minute we had already risen higher than any trees and were enjoying a misty Tuscan sunrise.
I can't describe the peacefulness of it... the gentlest motion you can imagine... the occasional sound of dog barking or a hunter's shots far below.... the far off layers of high mountains north of Tuscany... the Towers of San Gimignano off in the distance... the textures and geometry of vineyards and olive groves... the hovering and drifting wisps of smoke as farmers all around were burning their olive tree prunings. You could smell the smoke even from up high. Looking down on villas and peasant farmhouses alike.
After about 1-1/2 hours, Stefano proved his skills by not only putting the balloon down in exactly the field he wanted, but by actually landing the basket right behind the balloon's trailer (so Lisa could climb out easier right onto the trailer's bed!)
The other reason I chose Stefano and Gianna as our balloon hosts was because, unlike the folding tables in the landing field with cheap wine, cheese and fruit, we were driven back to their 600 year old country home for a brunch with a quality Prosecco. Sausage, proscuitto, cheese, fruit, amazing thick millifiori honey (tasted like jam), a Tuscan raisin bread, rustic bread, foccacia, orange juice, and more..
All this, plus great conversation (Stefano is a bit of a philosopher), 4 little dogs for Lucas to play with, and a tour back in time--of their house... with the most amazingly authentic Tuscan kitchen!
Overall, one of the best experiences of my life... we went to over 2600 feet high. Lucas and Lisa feel the same. Thank you Gianna and Stefano!
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Castel d'Orcia had lots of switchback curves to conquer, but I made it. Again, the wide vistas were breathtaking, at every hairpin turn a new elevation and new views. This "Rocca" (castle on top of a high point) set on a high precipice was amazing. There is a fortress on one mountaintop and a tower on its close neighbor. It looked like something out of King Arthur or the Lord of the Rings.
When we got to the top there was a very naturalized looking area with parking a cafe and walking paths. The little cafe gave us great views, ice cream pops, sodas and almost-internet. We took a walk along the brick path along the edge of the cliff--pretty scary at times with poorly maintained shaky wooden handrails and uneven brick path. There were spots that had slid away entirely so we decided not to go further. Next, a drive to some real Roman baths...
The alarm went off on the Tom-Tom to alerted us of speed cameras as we entered the town limits. Good boy, Tommy. A road hog on my butt made me pull down a side street just to get rid of the nut. Mind you, this was IN the speed zone!
This village had a large car park in front of the long wall along the side of town. Medieval walls and arched ports led us to a cute stroll through time back to the Renaissance and dinner at a cute family style trattoria... A nice old lady who was sweet to Lucas and patient with my spotty Italian led to gnocchi bolognese and tagliatelle. Molto buono. We had some antipasti too. Lucas' insistence that we head home meant no dolci (dessert) for us... home and sleep came in no time.... after a ride in the dark through the gravel backroads and headlights coming upon hundred of sleepy sheep and two pissed off sheep dogs!